Tirien A. Steinbach, Stanford University’s Law School Diversity Dean Is ‘on Leave’ as Controversy Boils Over a Disrupted Speech

Heckler's veto in raucous play at Stanford Law School, federal judge's speech shouted down — First Amendment News 371 | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

Tirien A. Steinbach and Stuart Kyle Duncan

Dear Commons Community,

Tirien A. Steinbach, the Diversity Dean at Stanford’s law school who has drawn fire from right-wing pundits and free-speech activists over her actions during a federal judge’s recent disrupted speech, is now on leave. It’s not clear whether the school placed Steinbach on leave or she stepped aside voluntarily.

Jenny S. Martinez, the school’s dean, made the announcement yesterday in a detailed, 5,000-word letter to the campus community that also touched on free speech, academic freedom, institutional neutrality, the law, university policy, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.  As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In the letter, Martinez defended her decision to apologize to the federal judge, Stuart Kyle Duncan, for how students had behaved during his speech and to single out “staff members who should have enforced university policies” that bar disruption of campus events. Martinez’s comments apparently refer in part to Steinbach, who became a focal point during law students’ protest of Duncan’s speech, on March 9.

Martinez also said that law students would be required to take a half-day course on “the topic of freedom of speech and the norms of the legal profession” this spring, and that administrators would receive more training on the university’s disruption protocols.

Duncan, nominated by former President Donald J. Trump to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, had been invited by the school’s chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative and libertarian group, for an event titled “The Fifth Circuit in Conversation With the Supreme Court: Covid, Guns, and Twitter.” In advance of Duncan’s speech, students opposed to his court decisions — including those that limited the rights of same-sex couples and denied transgender children access to the bathroom matching their gender identity — hung fliers around campus and said the society “should be ashamed” for inviting him.

At the speech, student protesters loudly interrupted Duncan and, according to some free-speech experts, censored him. Steinbach, the associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, then intervened and talked to the room for roughly six minutes. She said she sympathized with students who believed that Duncan’s actions as a judge had been harmful. She also said that he had a right to speak.

Martinez seemed to take issue with two of Steinbach’s comments. When a disruption occurs during a speech on campus, Martinez wrote in the letter, “the administrator who responds should not insert themselves into the debate with their own criticism of the speaker’s views.”

Secondly, it would be inappropriate, Martinez said, for an administrator to suggest “that the speaker reconsider whether what they plan to say is worth saying.” That point appeared to cite a refrain that Steinbach repeated several times: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

A Stanford University spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment yesterday about the circumstances of Steinbach’s leave.

The scene featuring Steinbach and Duncan — captured on video and audio — has been thoroughly scrutinized within and outside of higher ed for two weeks.

While speaking to the room, Steinbach explained that Duncan’s views had made her uncomfortable. “For many people in this law school who work here, who study here, and who live here, your advocacy, your opinions from the bench, land as absolute disenfranchisement of their rights,” she said to Duncan.

She also questioned whether it was worth letting Duncan speak, given the division it had spurred among students. She acknowledged the student protesters and mused that they might be right to suggest that Stanford’s free-speech policy should change. She also defended the existing policy.

“And I do want to hear your remarks, and I do want to say thank you for protecting the free speech that we value here of our speakers and of our protesters, and I want to remind you all of one thing: I chose to be here today. You all chose to be here today,” Steinbach said. “You can stay if this is where you want to be right now. But make that choice.”

Afterward, some student protesters left the room, and the event continued, ending roughly 40 minutes earlier than planned. In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, Duncan wrote that after Steinbach spoke, he opened the floor for comments and questions rather than finish his prepared remarks.

“The protesters showed not the foggiest grasp of the basic concepts of legal discourse: That one must meet reason with reason, not power. That jeering contempt is the opposite of persuasion. That the law protects the speaker from the mob, not the mob from the speaker,” Duncan wrote. “Worst of all, Ms. Steinbach’s remarks made clear she is proud that Stanford students are being taught this is the way law should be.”

Major news outlets have covered and published opinions on the fallout, including Newsweek, the Daily Mail, the New York Post, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, USA Today, Fox News, and other publications. A moving billboard, which appears to have been funded by Accuracy in Media, a nonprofit conservative news watchdog, called for Steinbach to be fired.

“Tirien Steinbach uses fascist tactics to bully others,” the billboard said. “Stanford, stand up for REAL inclusivity!”

In the days after the event, Martinez, the law dean, and Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford’s president, apologized to Duncan. Martinez also sent an email to the law school and to its alumni, assuring them that “the way the event with Judge Duncan unfolded was not aligned with our institutional commitment to freedom of speech.” Administrators’ decision to apologize drew condemnation from several student groups and prompted dozens of students to hold a protest outside of Martinez’s class.

Stanford students have argued that they had a free-speech right to protest Duncan. But in her Wednesday letter, Martinez said some students’ sustained heckling had violated the law school’s disruption policy. Enforcement of that policy, Martinez wrote, is an important element of ensuring academic freedom and an inclusive environment for students.

“I can think of no circumstance,” she wrote, “in which giving those in authority the right to decide what is and is not acceptable content for speech has ended well.”

Martinez also devoted a section of her lengthy statement to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and its intersection with academic freedom.

Martinez said she wanted “to set expectations clearly going forward” that the law school would not “announce institutional positions on a wide range of current social and political issues” or “exclude or condemn speakers” as part of its commitment to diversity. Focusing on such actions “as hallmarks of an ‘inclusive’ environment,” she wrote, would run the risk of “enforcing an institutional orthodoxy.”

She cited the Kalven Report and its promise of institutional neutrality. Last year several colleges announced their commitment to the half-century-old report, which has also been cited in model legislation about free speech created by conservative think tanks.

“I recognize that the course I have chosen will not please everyone,” Martinez wrote, “not least of which those who have demanded that I retract my apology to Judge Duncan and those who have demanded that students be immediately expelled.”

This is a difficult situation that will likely emerge  in other schools and venues.


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